On Writing: Educating Myself on Diversity in Fiction

Diversity Mask from the ArtWorkers exhibition at the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts in Joplin, Missouri. See license here.

Diversity Mask from the ArtWorkers exhibition at the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts in Joplin, Missouri. CC by 2.0.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity in genre fiction – where to find it, how to write it, and what it means. In my own writing, I aim to include people of diverse backgrounds and histories, whether cultural, racial, sexual or otherwise, but like many authors, I worry about whether I’m “doing diversity right”.

I worry that I will create stereotypes and tropes (commonly occurring devices) through ignorance, even as I try to avoid them, since diversity in fiction necessarily calls for writing about people whose cultures are foreign to me and whose experiences I haven’t shared. But I also don’t want to not include those characters just for fear of getting them wrong.

So what am I doing about it?

Well, first and foremost, I’ve been researching. I’ve been reading articles, essays, and blog posts for months, trying to understand different points of view and how my own contribution to the written word can impact the world around me. I’ve been learning about what differentiates an innocent trope, such as “robots” or “time travel” in science fiction, from the harmful – like the “Magical Negro”, a cliché in which a person of color with supernatural powers, wisdom, or insight appears for the sole purpose of helping a white character.

Although I had seen this character over and over, it wasn’t until recently that I really became aware of it in the media I consume. According to Wikipedia, “critics use the word “negro” because it is considered archaic, and usually offensive, in modern English. This underlines their message that a “magical black character” who goes around selflessly helping white people is a throwback to stereotypes such as the “Sambo” or “Noble savage””*.

After reviewing this list of Magical Negro occurrences in fiction (which is far from exhaustive), I realized that not only had I been consuming the trope for years, I’d been buying into it without thinking. And so do a lot of really wonderful, well-intentioned readers and writers. As Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu points out in her 2004 Strange Horizons article “Stephen King’s Super-Duper Magical Negroes”, my own favorite author’s frequent use of the Magical Negro may be problematic, but it doesn’t make him a racist.

Nor is the problem of the Magical Negro inherent any time a black character commits an act of self-sacrifice for the good of a white character. Rather, per Okorafor-Mbachu, “[the] problem becomes apparent when viewed in context: 1) The fact that this character is typically the only (or one of very few) black character[s] in the story. 2) The history of slavery and subsequent race relations in the United States, and the world. 3) The Magical Negro’s low position in life.”

Which leads me to a really major conclusion, one that I thought about long and hard before deciding that diversity in fiction was even an issue I felt ready – or qualified – to discuss.

Ready? Here it is:

It’s ok to make mistakes.

Really great, famous authors make them, and regular people make them, and I will undoubtedly make them too. But the real mistake is in not thinking about the big issues that affect all of us. Like diversity, or privilege, or how our contributions to the world will affect it.

So far, I haven’t been guilty of the use of more obvious clichés like the Magical Negro, but all my reading has left me aware of other things that could be improved upon in my writing. For example, issues of diversity are not limited to just primary or supporting characters – they extend to worldbuilding as well.

As Geena Davis (star of Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own, and founder of her namesake Institute on Gender and Media) discusses in her excellent December 2013 essay on sexism in Hollywood, even crowd scenes in movies are “enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space”. Aside from female characters’ hypersexualization and lack of occupations in family-rated films (G, PG and PG-13), Davis points out the following:

  • there are roughly three male characters for every female;
  • that crowd and group scenes in these films — live-action and animated — contain only 17 percent female characters;
  • and that the ratio of male-female characters has been exactly the same since 1946.

So how do we address this issue?

Davis explains how we can very easily boost female presence in our writing:

“Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?”

Author Marie Lu also endorses the concept of flipping characters’ gender, race, or orientation in her “Writing Diverse Fiction: A Practical Guide”, and provides further useful tips on how to apply the Bechdel Test to your writing. While Lu cautions that the Test isn’t always accurate, and may be best used as a guideline than a hard and fast rule, the main point is that if your story features primary female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man, there’s a good chance that you’re on track to feminist writing.

As Lu says, we all mess up from time to time, but it is far better to try and fail than to ignore diversity altogether.

* from Jones, D. Marvin (2005). Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers. p. 35. ISBN 0-275-97462-6. OCLC 56095393.

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